Raphael Georg Klopper’s review published on Letterboxd:
The immediate question that any new version of a famous iconic story, which by itself works as a powerful historical account of the even that forever stained humanity’s live in the 20th century; is of course: what does it really bring of any different and relevant to sustain its welcome?
Thankfully, Edward Berger’s most recent version adapting Erich Maria Remarque’s powerful novel All Quiet on the Western Front shows its credentials by properly presenting itself as a great visceral unforgiving war movie and a respectful adaptation of its source material, although using it more as a guide than a straightforward adaptation of the material like Lewis Milestone’s masterpiece.
Instead, Berger’s version borrows the title, some of the key structural moments, and the overall somber tone of the original text, to build its own a narrative that prioritizes the capture of the horrors of war by witnessing the carnage firsthand in an immersive brutally detailed experience. With the anti-war message being more visual than exposed through the philosophical logic of pacifism from Remarque's novel that was coming from that pacifist and anti-war ideology, but which gets replaced here by a painful and sad nihilistic vision, but that somewhat gets rid of some key the thematic points from the original story.
A large portion of the novel regarding a reflection of the soldiers trying to revert to civilian life is left completely out of the picture, which feels sad given how much it would add here. But I guess Berger's working with the line of thought that this idea of living as a civilian seems like a prospect that the characters here have already given up on ever returning to, as they are already doomed from the beginning as the first minutes already make it clear, our group of protagonists are nothing more than new substitutes for the uniforms already worn out on the front line.
While adding the entire German delegation negotiating the armistice subplot, is very much a Paths of Glory sort of attempt of the film trying to expand the political scope of the novel, but that removes a bit of the strength that the scenes in the front line alone carry. So every time we go back to Daniel Brühl’s character inside a train car, all frustrated trying to push an agreement that ends all the massacre, it gets very distracting and kills the movie’s pacing off.
Although I understand that is trying to work as this humanistic work done by not all bad men in the commanding officers, fighting for a potential hope that might save the boys' lives, also functioning as a ticking clock structure that adds tension to the overall movie, but it really feels unnecessary after these characters completely vanish from the middle of the movie onwards.
Nevertheless is undeniable the punch present in the images of generals and diplomats living in luxury, stationed comfortably away from the front, acting ignorant and indifferent from the suffering and terror of the front lines, deciding the fate of the men tearing themselves to pieces in raids to conquer and lose miles of land, day after day –something dealt with in the books but that gets expanded upon considerably here, by shows through the commanding officer character the first seeds of what would become the fascist uprising, stemming from the frustration of a peace treaty that left the nation humiliated at its worst.
Which in turn gives an ampler depth to the blind nationalism main theme of the book, although, in the long run, barely much of that is felt by the end as the very focal point of the film becomes about. The teacher's section pushing into young students' heads these senses of patriotism and national pride, inspiring them to enlist to become wandering heroes, is minimized to a scene of mere seconds.
So the feeling of patriotism and pride initially carried by the boys, is substitute by the movies hindsight of visualizing the huge waste of lives being thrown away for reasons of personal pride frustrated by commanders who never had a true war experience, the same experience that we are put to live alongside Paul and his friends.
Powerful enough on its own degree, but there’s something that prevents the movie to really reach the masterful status that it might aim for. Sticking to the original material itself would suffice enough to make it so, but deciding to sticking to create its own story, while commendable, makes its challenges much higher, making impossible to avoid comparisons to its superior version!
For one Edward Berger’s direction is very assure, very unapologetically adopting a very Saving Private Ryan Hollywood level of aesthetic that might some claim how there is a certain sadistic embellishment to the war sequences, given its very clear budget and full use modern technology. All is really well put together, grimly and viscerally shot, capturing the visual scale of the battlefield and the relentless chaos of trench warfare at its rawest, with authentic and merciless claustrophobia to every live getting wasted so randomly like they were nothing but a bag of flesh and blood.
Though has some strange creative decisions, like the very techno Trent Reznor type soundtrack from Volker Bertelmann feels very off-synch to some of the sequences, that more feels like a neat stylish choice, made to differentiate this version of others, than actually purposeful. And overall the slow meditative direction lingers on an innocuous signature between shots of pretty sad imagery, that’s much more about building the feel and tone than actually marinate over an actual story.
Which makes some of the tragic poetry present in some of the best moments from Remarque’s novel, getting replaced by more nihilism, more brutality, that runs in the risk of making it all feeling empty. Especially when trying to evoke those “artsy contemplative” so perfectly framed static shots that removes you away from the dry blood-soaking mud, instead of allowing you to live in it!
Something that leads to two interesting moments, which exemplifies how the work is in that ALMOST of its potential greatness, and the somewhat confusing route by which it gets there, but also showing its own unique qualities of greatness.
The first is the scene where Kat dies, although the same as in the book with some changes added making the death even more of a cruel twist of fate (which was enough in itself without having to include a psycho looking kid delivering the killing shot), is removed from the weight of the surprise of his death by Paul who carries him to the hospital believing that he can still save his friend only to then receive the bucket of cold water that everything was in vain.
Whereas in both the Milestone book and film that feeling is intact, here you can see that moment coming, even if you hadn’t read the novel or watched the original classic, just out of the sheer merciless nature of the movie. Now if that was on purpose or a collateral effect of its stylistic choices, I’ll leave it up to you!
The other is the ending, completely different but reaching towards the same meaning: Paul dying out of nowhere, a collapsing effect of causality. Either during combat with a bayonet in his back, seconds away from the armistice being in full effect – like in this version, or just by reaching out towards a butterfly and getting hit by a bullet just when the report of All Quiet on the Western Front is printed.
Not that the new version removes away the power of its ending, which is there, making a full circle of recruits and veterans changing roles in an endless cycle of senseless deaths, and emphasizes the key different between the two versions, while in the original it was Paul’s, the individual’s journey being symbolically validated through his brutal death, that embodied the testimony lived by the work of Remarque.
Here, Paul is just yet another face in the crowd of bodies, his story and of his friends, their memories and experiences of the war, if in the book symbolized by a pair of boots that passed from hand to hand among Paul's friends, here is a handkerchief that belonged to one of the friends, with the scent of a woman, a dream of love, pleasure and a life of peace, distant and unreachable for all of them; all dies with him!
History continues, the individual’s is forgotten!
Like I said, this movie validates its existence, despite all the small gripes I might have with it being a fan of the novel and the original classic, but nevertheless the brutal nightmarish relentless power of the story, and the stained scar left by the Great War in the history of humanity, is still found very much intact here, and that’s all that matters!